Space module puffs up like a bag of popcorn

Image: BEAM
A camera on the International Space Station shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, after inflation. (Credit: NASA TV)

It took almost eight hours, but NASA accomplished the first expansion of a pop-up module at the International Space Station today, by inflating the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

BEAM was built for NASA by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace under the terms of a $17.8 million contract. It was sent up to the station last month in the unpressurized trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule. In its folded-up form, the cylinder-shaped module measures only 7 feet long, but when it’s pressurized with air, it can grow to twice its size.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams started the job of filling BEAM with air on Thursday, but it was tough going: The module grew by only a few inches before NASA had to call off the operation for the day.

Mission managers surmised that the reinforced fabric on BEAM’s exterior had gotten stiff during prolonged storage. That led to “increased friction between the various layers … which is possibly causing this whole expansion process to just unfold a little bit slower than all of the initial predictions,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot said.

NASA let the fabric relax on Friday. Today, the pace was just as slow as it was two days earlier, but steadier.

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This may be the best view of Pluto we ever see

Image: Pluto surface
Craters and linear features are scattered across Pluto’s terrain in this high-resolution view from NASA’s New Horizons probe. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Almost a year after NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past Pluto, the team behind the mission has put together a long mosaic strip that includes all of the highest-resolution images.

“This new image product is just magnetic,” Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from Southwest Research Institute who serves as New Horizons’ principal investigator, said today in a NASA news release. “It makes me want to go back on another mission to Pluto and get high-resolution images like these across the entire surface.”

The view starts up at the edge of Pluto’s disk and runs hundreds of miles, down to nearly the terminator line between Plutonian day and night. The width of the strip ranges from 45 to 55 miles, depending on the perspective. Peak resolution is about 260 feet per pixel.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket leans in for a landing

Image: SpaceX Falcon landing
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster stands on a drone ship after landing. (Credit: SpaceX)

For the third time in a row, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster sent a payload into space and then came back for a landing on an oceangoing platform. But this time, the booster was a little shaken up.

Today’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida put the Thaicom 8 telecommunications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Minutes after liftoff at 5:40 p.m. ET (2:40 p.m. PT), the Falcon’s first stage fell away from the second stage. While the second stage continued into orbit with the satellite, the first stage went through a series of maneuvers aimed at braking its supersonic descent and putting itself down on an autonomous drone ship hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Today’s success rounded out what could be called a hat trick in rocket reusability. SpaceX pulled off its first at-sea touchdown on April 8, and did it again on the night of May 5.

This one was a nail-biter: The launch to a high orbit meant the booster had to re-enter the atmosphere at an incredibly high speed.

In a series of tweets, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the booster was roughed up when it landed on the drone ship, known as “Of Course I Still Love You.”

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Expandable space module barely expands

Image: BEAM module
The Bigelow Expandable Space Module, or BEAM, is designed to expand to twice its folded-up length, but during an initial attempt, it stretched out just a few inches. (Credit: NASA TV)

Update: NASA will make its second attempt to inflate the Bigelow Expandable Space Module starting at around 6 a.m. PT May 28. More details below. 

A multimillion-dollar pop-up room that NASA sees as the future of space habitats expanded just a few inches before the experiment fizzled at the International Space Station on May 26. The space agency said it would try again to deploy the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

BEAM was developed by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace under the terms of a $17.8 million contract with NASA, and sent to the station last month in the unpressurized “trunk” of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

The technology takes advantage of a concept that NASA developed in the 1990s. Bigelow Aerospace, founded by real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, licensed the concept and tested it with two free-flying modules that have been launched into orbit over the past decade.

After BEAM’s arrival at the space station, astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to hook up the folded-up module to a port on the Tranquility mode. On May 26, the crew tried releasing air into the module to expand it from about 7 feet to 13 feet in length. The module pushed out about 5 inches, but then it stopped.

After a couple of hours of effort, NASA called off the attempt.

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Five flights of fancy at ‘Above and Beyond’

Image: Full Throttle
Letu Yang helps his 4-year-old son, Rafael Yang, fly a jet through a “Full Throttle” simulation at the “Above and Beyond” exhibit at the Museum of Flight. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Most of the floor space at Seattle’s Museum of Flight is set aside to celebrate past glories of aerospace – but “Above and Beyond,” a traveling exhibition that opens this weekend, is different: It’s all about what lies ahead.

During a Thursday preview, schoolkids thronged to watch a wraparound video about the future of flight, play big-screen video games, get their selfies taken on a virtual Mars and check out exhibits about drones, 3-D printing and next-generation spacecraft.

The Boeing Co. is presenting the interactive exhibition as part of this year’s centennial celebration, but “Above and Beyond” goes far beyond the story of the company’s first 100 years.

“It doesn’t just concentrate on what Boeing has done. It concentrates on the future,” Doug King, the Museum of Flight’s president and CEO, said as he watched teens and tweens swarm past. “And these are the people who are going to create that future.”

The exhibition has already been at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. That means the producers at Texas-based Evergreen Exhibitions already have a pretty good idea which attractions will be the most popular. Here are the top five, as listed by Mike Kempf, Evergreen Exhibitions’ vice president of marketing:

Check out the top five on GeekWire.


Jeff Bezos: Next spaceflight will include flaw

Image: New Shepard with parachutes
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule descends on the end of its parachute system during an uncrewed test flight in April 2015. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos predicts there’ll be a problem with a parachute the next time his Blue Origin venture flies its uncrewed New Shepard spaceship. He’ll make sure of it.

Flying with a bad parachute is part of Blue Origin’s plan to test the suborbital craft under stressful conditions, in preparation for flying passengers to the edge of outer space in as little as two years.

In today’s email update, Bezos said he and the rest of the team were “finishing our mission planning for another flight of New Shepard, which will be our fourth flight with this vehicle.”

The New Shepard propulsion module and crew capsule went through successful flights to space and vertical landings in November, January and April at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility. During last month’s test outing, the propulsion module didn’t relight its hydrogen-powered BE-3 rocket engine until just seconds before what would have been a crash landing. New Shepard made a soft touchdown nevertheless.

“On this next mission, we’ll execute additional maneuvers on both the crew capsule and the booster to increase our vehicle characterization and modeling accuracy,” Bezos wrote.

“We also plan to stress the crew capsule by landing with an intentionally failed parachute, demonstrating our ability to safely handle that failure scenario,” he continued. “It promises to be an exciting demonstration.”

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‘Space selfie’ project canceled; refunds offered

Image: Space selfie
An artist’s conception shows how an Arkyd 100 space telescope would have taken a “space selfie” from orbit. (Credit: Planetary Resources via Kickstarter)

REDMOND, Wash. – Three years ago, Planetary Resources raised more than $1.5 million on Kickstarter to build a space telescope that would let users snap selfies from orbit. Today, the company says it can’t follow through on the project – and is offering full refunds to its 17,614 backers.

“It’s a decision that we make with a heavy heart,” Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, told GeekWire during a visit to the company’s Redmond headquarters.

Lewicki said the support received during the Kickstarter campaign exceeded their wildest expectations, but it wasn’t enough to fund everything that needed to be done to turn the promised system into reality.

“We evaluated a lot of different opportunities with businesses, with educational institutions, with different outlets,” he said. “What we didn’t find, since the campaign closed a few years ago, was the follow-on interest to take it from a project and scale it into a fully funded mission. … We’re going to wind down the project and bring it to a close.”

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Planetary Resources focuses on Earth imaging

Image: Planetary Resources clean room
Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki and GeekWire’s Alan Boyle mug for the camera behind two Arkyd 6 satellites being tested for flight in Planetary Resources’ clean room. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

REDMOND, Wash. – Planetary Resources was founded as an asteroid mining company, but a fresh infusion of $21.1 million in investment puts the emphasis on a space frontier that’s closer to home: Earth observation.

“It leverages everything that we have been working on for the last several years … and it moves us forward in the direction of asteroid prospecting,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said this week during a tour of the company’s Redmond headquarters.

The Series A funding announced today will be used to deploy and operate Planetary Resources’ Earth observation program,known as Ceres. The lead investor is the OS Fund, founded by Los Angeles venture capitalist Bryan Johnson. Other investors include Idea Bulb Ventures, Vast Ventures, Grishin Robotics, Conversion Capital, the Seraph Group, Space Angels Network and Google co-founder Larry Page.

In a statement, Johnson said Ceres will represent “a seismic shift for the new space economy.”

Planetary Resources also announced it would be shutting down what was once a wildly popular Kickstarter project that would have enabled backers to take “space selfie” pictures with the company’s space telescopes. Lewicki said all 17,614 backers would be offered full refunds.

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Solar Impulse lands in PA, sets sights on NY

Image: Solar Impulse landing
The Solar Impulse 2 plane comes in for a landing at Lehigh Valley, Penn. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

One day after a close call, the Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world airplane made a 17-hour trip from Ohio to Pennsylvania today in preparation for its star turn in New York.

The gossamer craft floated down to Lehigh Valley International Airport just as night was falling, at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) with a crowd of well-wishers in attendance. Some of them flew the Swiss flag in honor of pilot Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer who co-founded Solar Impulse.

“There is an incredible traffic jam around the airport,” Piccard said from the plane’s solo cockpit just before landing. “It’s really fun. … It’s probably the nicest scenery I’ve had for landing.”

A 17-hour flight time from Dayton International Airport to Lehigh Valley would be classified as a nightmare if Piccard had been piloting a commercial jet. But it’s par for the course for Solar Impulse 2.

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NASA fires back in spat over asteroid data

Image: WISE spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. WISE observations of near-Earth objects were analyzed for the NEOWISE mission. (Credit: NASA)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – NASA issued a statement today disputing Seattle tech icon Nathan Myhrvold’s critique of asteroid data analysis from the space agency’s NEOWISE mission.

The statement follows up on reports published this week by GeekWire and othermedia outlets. In those reports, Myhrvold said NEOWISE’s analysis relied on flawed statistical calculations, which resulted in incorrect or highly uncertain measurements for thousands of asteroids.

When GeekWire showed Myhrvold’s critique to scientists associated with NEOWISE and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they identified what they said were serious errors – including misinterpretations of NEOWISE’s methods and an apparent confusion between radius and diameter in one key equation. GeekWire’s report on Monday referred to those problems, as well as Myhrvold’s acknowledgment of mistakes.

Today’s NASA statement refers to those errors as “mistakes that an independent peer review process is designed to catch.”

“While critique and re-examination of published results are essential to the scientific process, it is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said. “This completes a necessary step to ensure science results are independently validated, reproducible and of value to the science community.”

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